The Yankees could nail down a spot in their first ever Wild Card play-in game tonight with a win and some help from around the league. The game will begin approximately 173 hours from now - at 8 PM on Tuesday, October 6th - so Joe Girardi's and Brian Cashman's focus should be shifting toward who'll make the 25-man roster for the all-or-nothing affair.
We've talked a lot about what the Yankees will look like in the real postseason, but thanks to a loophole, the Wild Card game roster is a strange and different animal. Since teams don't need a four-man rotation for a single game, as they would for a five or seven game playoff series, they can give themselves extra flexibility by leaving off their inactive starters and replacing them with extra relievers and bench fodder. In many ways, Wild Card game rosters look more like they do in September than October with late-season call-ups and 40-man fringe players often making the cut. MLB could fix that easily by requiring that teams keep their Wild Card squad intact through the Division Series, but since they haven't yet, the Yankees have the opportunity to take advantage.
Here's how the twelve teams who played in the Wild Card game between 2012 and 2014 set themselves up:
|Wild Card Team||Starting Pitchers||Relief Pitchers||Position Players|
Of the Wild Card dozen, nine rosters included ten or fewer pitchers, which would be unheard of in the regular season, where pitch count-shortened starts and mix-n-match bullpens grow more common by the year. No one has carried twelve pitchers to the Wild Card game, as the Yankees did during their last playoff series, the 2012 ALCS. Of the pitchers who were involved, only four of the twelve staffs included more than three members of their starting rotations. Last year's A's took the bolstered bench plan the farthest, heading in with only eight pitchers and an eight-man bench reminiscent of one from the '50s or '60s.
Wild Card game pitching staffs, besides being smaller, come with heavily defined roles. Pitcher one, obviously, is the guy who starts the game. That'll hopefully be Masahiro Tanaka for the Yankees, if all goes well in his start tomorrow night, but Luis Severino or Michael Pineda could also take the ball. Behind that, a second rested starter is necessary in case something goes horribly wrong with choice number one, like a pre or early-game injury or some serious ineffectiveness. If they don't start, Pineda and Severino could be the guy, but only if neither starts during this weekend's series at Baltimore. They're candidates for a third role, too, which is a long-man to use if the game goes deep into extra innings. Ivan Nova might make it in that way and so might Adam Warren, though he's probably a better bet for the middle relief spot he held for most of the second half of the season. CC Sabathia seems unlikely to be used in any kind of bullpen capacity.
Next comes the more traditional part of the 'pen, which Jason discussed in detail yesterday. If the Wild Card game goes as planned, the Yankees won't use anyone but Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances, perhaps with a bit of Justin Wilson sprinkled in. You can bet on the big two getting more than six outs if the Yankees have a lead - and even if they don't - but Warren will be around, as will two or three other arms if things get out of control. Those final spots are where Girardi and Cashman will need to pick from an unappealing array that includes Chasen Shreve, James Pazos, Nick Rumbelow, Branden Pinder, Andrew Bailey, Bryan Mitchell, and Caleb Cotham. There's really no reason to take more than nine pitchers in total. As much as Girardi likes to play his binder-drawn match-ups, if anyone from that last group ends up in the game, it's an ominous sign.
If the Yankees do in fact go with nine pitchers, they'll have room for a seven-player bench. John Ryan Murphy will back up at catcher. While some Wild Card teams have kept a third backstop, that's probably not necessary here, since Murphy's bat is strong enough to hit for himself if he comes up for some reason. Chris Young is also a lock with his strong numbers vs. lefties. The real question for Young is whether Girardi makes the bold move of starting him over Jacoby Ellsbury or Brett Gardner if the Yankees face Dallas Keuchel or Scott Kazmir of Houston or Andrew Heaney of Los Angeles. With a longer bench, Rico Noel is also close to a sure thing, given the manager's recent habit of pinch-running late in games. Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez and Brian McCann have their times around the bases measured by sun dial, so there's a good chance the speedster will get a chance to make a difference in a close contest.
That leaves four more open spots. One of those could and should go to Slade Heathcott. He gives the Yankees a second pinch-running option, and his plus defense and representative bat would probably put him in the game after Noel runs for Beltran or A-Rod. The final three openings depend on how the Yankees handle their starting second base job. If Dustin Ackley gets the nod, Girardi will want Brendan Ryan or Stephen Drew as a defensive replacement. There's that lefty thing, though, which might change things. Ackley's career platoon splits aren't drastic, but Ryan could still get the start and Rob Refsnyder is suddenly in the conversation now that he's played the Yankees' last four games vs. southpaws. It's hard to believe the team would go with the inexperienced and defensively-challenged Refsnyder with the season on the line when they wouldn't do it for most of the year, but he could still make the roster with a chance to pinch-hit vs. a lefty at some point. It may be overkill to take all four second basemen, but there's no other position player with a compelling argument, and carrying more questionable relievers wouldn't help much either.
Here's my shot-in-the-dark, soon-to-be-debunked Wild Card game Yankee roster. What's yours?
|Brian McCann||Dustin Ackley||Carlos Beltran||Alex Rodriguez||Masahiro Tanaka||Dellin Betances|
|John Ryan Murphy||Greg Bird||Jacoby Ellsbury||Andrew Miller|
|Stephen Drew||Brett Gardner||Michael Pineda||James Pazos|
|Didi Gregorius||Slade Heathcott||Luis Severino||Nick Rumbelow|
|Chase Headley||Rico Noel||Adam Warren|
|Rob Refsnyder||Chris Young||Justin Wilson|